Vision: Imagining a different future – Fishing in Aotearoa in 2040

When the panel that the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor reported on our Rethinking Plastics Project, we began with a vision from our panel in which we imagined a different future. This proved helpful to capture how a new future might look if our recommendations were accepted. People were ready to imagine a different future because there was a social and cultural licence for change. For this project, there has been a very different mood, with little consensus on the extent of the need for change, and an understanding that change would be dependent on many factors, only one of which is the role that science might play.

Nevertheless, to end this report, we present an imagined future – not a prediction – but a provocation to envisage a different way of harvesting from our oceans, which draws on some of the exciting research ideas presented in ‘A future focus’.

To end this report, we present an imagined future – not a prediction – but a provocation to envisage a different way of harvesting from our oceans, which draws on some of the exciting research ideas.

A fishing vessel at sunset off the coast of the Coromandel with the words 'He moana pukepuke e ekengia e te waka'

An aspirational vision for the future of commercial fishing beyond 2040…

In a future Aotearoa, Amelia and Nikau are showing Amelia’s grandad what they have done with his old trawler. The old girl looked the same as ever sitting on the wharf, so sitting in the galley with a cup of tea, grandad doesn’t really see what all the fuss is about. They are heading out to catch snapper, just like they did twenty years ago, although the best fishing spots have shifted as the oceans have warmed, and the range of spots you are allowed to fish in keeps changing, to keep up with the moving fisheries.

The solar panels on the roof are the first clue that something has changed, and there are a lot more screens in the wheelhouse too. Amelia wanders in to show him how they all work after they drop the net. It’s not actually a net to be honest, but it’s still called a net in the same way that in 2020 we still ‘dialled’ a number on a smartphone screen – an affectionate nod to outdated technology. The ‘net’ no longer drags along the seabed, as computer technology ensures the fishing equipment gently glides through the water just above the bottom, keeping intact precious shellfish, sponge and coral beds with an acoustic tickler available for coaxing bottom dwellers towards the surface for those catching scampi and prawns.

The boat has slowed and is moving gently at the speed of a swimming snapper. The screens light up and the old wheelhouse develops a new vibe. Grandad watches with delight as live snapper enter the net and keep swimming calmly, while smaller fish dart in and then out, completely unharmed. Slowly but surely, the net starts to fill, almost exclusively with snapper. A second screen shows a catalogue of individual fish, all annotated with individual markings. Fishal recogition™ is a patented AI technology which can identify individual fish that are perfect for the very high-end premium fish market. Amelia has used the nickname function so that some of her favourites light up. FR2897, Daisy, is highlighted on the screen, confusing and delighting grandad in equal measure. The algorithm can identify the fish by the pattern of spots on its scales, and reports that this is the third time that Daisy has been located. This time she is the perfect size for the premium export harvest category, and will be harvested rather than left in the sea to mature further.

On a third screen, the numbers are being crunched. The fish have been filmed from multiple angles and are being ID’d, sized, counted and virtually weighed. Cameras under boats have proved much more popular than the ones on the deck, and the old privacy issues of the 2020s are forgotten as the fully automated electronic monitoring leaves the fishers themselves free from observation. Data is livestreamed to the central data hub and automatically processed before heading to the regulator for compliance purposes.

It is very rare that there are any breaches of fishing regulations these days, because the technology acts as a safeguard to fishing over quota, and selectivity is so high that bycatch is negligible and is recorded swimming away. In any case, most local management plans have set catch limits lower than quota limits to protect the marine ecosystems. The central data hub also enables electronic monitoring of the live bycatch; this is aggregated across fishing vessels to ensure commercial sensitivity is respected. This has led to a paradigm shift in environmental monitoring, with a deep understanding of ecosystem health at all trophic levels informing the detailed dynamic three-dimensional models of marine ecosystems.

Finally, on screen four, specific data for this vessel arrives back, copied to head office for commercial intelligence. The fish-to-order delivery times are estimated for the high-end restaurants at home and overseas; Daisy is heading to Sydney. And the local wharf sales, building on early Ministry for Primary Industries pilot schemes and implemented nationally as part of the ‘Affordable Healthy Food Initiative’ across Aotearoa’s primary sector in 2025, are calculated for sale at local prices on return. These attract a government subsidy and a large crowd of locals. The robot-harvested scallops are a particular favourite.

Grandad is grudgingly impressed, but lurches into genuine excitement when screen five flashes an alarm. There is a large pod of dolphins nearby. The restoration of marine ecosystems is starting to lead to increasing challenges in avoiding the growing population of marine mammals. NewNetTech™ and the evolution of underwater bait-setting systems for longlines have completely solved the heartbreaking capture of seabirds from the old days, but there are still challenges with dolphins and sea lions that need manual intervention. Nikau runs into the wheelhouse to respond to the alarm. The OOApp™ had predicted that the dolphins were in another part of the gulf, but there was a 10% chance they would encounter some today in this top snapper spot. Happily the dolphins have not yet entered the net, so there is no need to release the snapper. Nikau turns up the volume on the precisely tuned acoustic pinger, and grandad swears he sees the dolphins scowl as they turn away. The catch is saved, and they all stand on the deck watching as the dolphins head off.

Amelia explains that the central fisheries data hub is not just collecting data from nets. It also collects detailed information on the seafloor, aggregated appropriately so that researchers have full and ready access without jeopardising commercially valuable information. The majority of our seabed has now been mapped and we know where our most vulnerable and important habitats are. While the seafloor and all seamounts are now protected from the harms of bottom trawling, which was phased out ahead of target in 2035, many are still in the process of recovering and the decades-long process of seamount restoration has begun as a priority research area in which Aotearoa leads the world.

Extensive marine coastal habitats are protected and we know much more about the creatures that live there. From the Far North right down to Rakiura Stewart Island we are starting to see the return of majestic native kelp forests along our coastlines. Divers can swim among the large snapper and tarakihi that dart through these complex underwater forests. There are also numerous crevices full of large rock lobsters. Our thriving coastal areas help repopulate commercial fisheries both inshore and deeper at sea.

The Strategic Ocean Action Plan launched by the new Oceans and Fisheries Minister with Te Ohu Kaimoana and the Iwi Leader’s Forum in 2022 represented a true Treaty partnership to care for the oceans. The QMS has evolved to better serve our fisheries system and the environment, while affirming the rights afforded by the Treaty of Waitangi. The agreed principles underlying the action plan brought congruence to the regulatory system across the fisheries and marine protection legislation, helped to coordinate specific localised management plans, and led to a shared sense of purpose to protect the oceans as a healthy environment with an abundance of fish nurtured by management at the appropriate spatial scale. The stalemate between those wanting to protect the ocean and those wanting to fish was finally broken during the process of community building that preceded the plan, and the agreed comprehensive network of areas protected by nuanced rāhui, informed at a local scale by local knowledge and mātauranga Māori, has allowed many of our marine habitats to recover and flourish.

The integrated fisheries research platform ‘Ko moana tenei’, which began in 2023, has increased our understanding of the basic biology of commercial species, food webs and ecosystems and means we have much greater confidence in the sustainability of our systems. The online dashboard has made it far easier to navigate the wealth of information and tunnel down into details of interest. Establishing ecological indicators back in the 2020s made a huge difference and ongoing refinement means that our ecosystem models are continually improving and have fewer assumptions every year. It’s now routine that research surveys use trawl gear that skims over the bottom without contact, deploy autonomous vehicles to satellite tag fish underwater, use cameras to monitor benthic habitat, and collect genetic and biochemical data to feed into annual stock assessments.

This year will be the first that the new traffic light stock assessment system has completed its cycle for every commercially fished stock. And now that there’s full transparency around commercial and non-commercial catch data, stock assessments and the decision-making process for reviewing stock status and catch allowance, the public are confident in the sustainability of fishing that takes place in Aotearoa. Community and local knowledge feeds more directly into decision making alongside industry data, at both a local and national level and communication is a two-way street. Not surprisingly, lots of our best ideas about new approaches to fishing have come from fishers, including the new ropeless acoustic pop-up pots that are used to harvest a now thriving rock lobster population, supported by scientific monitoring.

With the new Innovations Cluster and stronger relationships in the sector, it became much easier for fishers to engage in the research system and develop their ideas, with streamlined resourcing and minimal form filling. The annual showcase means these ideas spread far and wide. As Amelia and Nikau head to shore, an excited researcher contacts the boat – she was automatically alerted that one of the tagged fishes her team has been following is on board and wants a biopsy to check its DNA to inform genetic studies on the diversity of the stock and biochemical studies to confirm which nursery it had come from. She can also sample the seawater that has been automatically collected for eDNA giving a reliable and active measure of ocean biodiversity, which stabilised in 2030. They arrange to meet back at the wharf where the locals are already gathering for a fresh feed. Parallel innovations have taken place in the deep sea fishing sector, with multi-party ocean monitoring platforms supporting government and industry research, and innovations in fishing gear transforming the selectivity, efficiency and yield, while minimising damage to the seafloor.

There is one more piece of the puzzle to share with grandad. Many of the fish are now sold whole, and those that are filleted fetch nearly as high a price per fish. This too is a result of the research efforts to extract maximum value from the whole fish. Pure bioactives, fish oils, feedstock for cellular agritech and even fish leather are now manufactured and exported, often from the filleting factory sites themselves, to maximise the yield of the valuable marine-derived produce by processing while still fresh. The speed and responsiveness of our commercial fisheries has moved the industry to near-zero waste.

And then its home for a feed. We all have confidence in where and how our fresh fish caught, with a quick scan on an app telling the story of where and how your kaimoana was caught. Kaitiakitanga became part of an increased social environmental consciousness during the 2020s and means pollution has reduced through changes in materials used, our recycling abilities, and community initiatives that aim to clean up our environment.

Even though our population has increased, we have a better understanding of how land-based activities can be controlled to reduce the impact on oceans and have implemented many changes to reduce these impacts. These advances were made through the 2022 Oceans Strategic Action Plan which engendered greater cross-sector communication, relationships, and the acknowledgement of funding needs for cross-sectoral issues. In many areas previously impacted by land-based activities, ecosystems are recovering (like the return of subtidal seagrass and mussel beds) – some naturally and others with rehabilitative help.

While climate change continues to impact on our ecosystems, the ocean observing system established in 2022 has provided the vital information we’ve needed to understand the changing oceans and enable us to strengthen the resilience of many of our ecosystems to better withstand changes in ocean acidification, extreme weather events, and other issues current and future. The drive for community science in the marine space led to many recreational fishers and other non-commercial vessels adding sensors to their boats and collecting data for this system. We have already decreased the carbon footprint of our fisheries by moving to cleaner and more energy efficient means of fishing, along with our targeted technologies like the smart net and minimal biofuel waste.

Commercial fishing in Aotearoa is seen as word-leading and the Oceans and Fisheries Minister, along with all New Zealanders, is justly proud of the huge advances we have made in managing our ecosystems and fisheries in a way that benefits everyone. As well as providing affordable healthy kai for our communities, the reputation of our practices and our products around the globe, and the enormous growth in demand for seafood, has grown the industry to be a ten billion dollar contributor to GDP. Fishing is a sought-after career for our school leavers. We have led the use of sustainable practices in our trade agreements and the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) won an award from the World Sustainable Trade Organisation (WSTO) for its contribution towards international marine restoration as part of sustainable trade. Aotearoa is still on a mission to improve our knowledge and our systems, with commercial fisheries and scientists working together with the wider community to ensure that our industry and environment continue to thrive using ever more innovative tools and practices.